By the end of the 2010-2011 regular season of the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Dallas Mavericks found themselves as the third-seeded team in the top-heavy Western Conference.
They finished with an identical 57-25 win-loss slate as the two-time defending champions Los Angeles Lakers, but the Mavericks weren’t seen as legitimate title contenders. They weren’t even the best team in Texas during the regular season. That recognition belonged to the San Antonio Spurs who waltzed their way at the top of the Western Conference standings with an impressive 61-21 record.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, there were two teams who had better overall win-loss records over Dallas. The first one was the league-leading and up-and-coming Chicago Bulls (62-20), while the other was the much-hyped Miami Heat (58-24) squad led by their freshly formed “Big 3” of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh.
These four teams (if you want to include the Boston Celtics, go ahead and make it five) were heavily favored to win it all that year, while the Mavericks were expected to make their exit in the Western Conference semis or earlier.
After all, they had an aging core and Caron Butler. Butler, who was probably their second-best player behind Dirk Nowitzki, ruptured his patella tendon on his right knee in January which ruled him out the rest of the campaign.
Their starting line-up of Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, and DeShawn Stevenson had an average age of 32.6 that calendar year, while some of their bench players were on their 30’s as well – Jason Terry (34), Peja Stojaković (34), Brian Cardinal (34), and Brendan Haywood (31).
But as soon as the post-season started, the entire team suddenly became unstoppable and produced one of the most incredible championship runs in the history of the NBA.
In the first round of the Playoffs, Dallas encountered a tough team in the form of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. Head coach Nate McMillan had a solid eight-man rotation (yes, Brandon Roy played, but came off the bench, no Greg Oden though) that gave the Texas-based squad plenty of problems.
The Mavericks won the first two games at the American Airlines Center, their home floor, but lost the next two away from home. Losing the fourth game was a huge blow for Dallas as they let Portland come back from a 23-point deficit. Roy finished with 24 points, with 18 of those coming from the decisive final period.
Dallas eventually overcame the Trail Blazers after notching a 103-96 victory in game 6 of their hard-fought series. Nowitzki came up big with 33 points while shooting a perfect 100 percent from the free-throw line.
Then, waiting in the next round was the best team in Los Angeles.
Even though the Lakers surprisingly struggled against the seventh-seeded New Orleans Hornets (they were playing without the injured David West) in the previous round, the odds were still with them since they were the two-time reigning champions and it was arguably the deepest team (at least on paper) that Phil Jackson coached in his second stint with the franchise.
Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol were again named All-Stars, while Lamar Odom finally bagged the Sixth-Man of the Year accolade. The team also retained six players (Derek Fisher, Metta World Peace, Andrew Bynum, Shannon Brown, Luke Walton) from last season and added four hungry ring-less veterans (Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Theo Ratliff, Joe Smith) to bolster the roster.
None of these mattered to the Mavericks though as they swept the Lakers en route to their first Western Conference Finals appearance in five years.
What made this feat amazing was that after coming from behind (16 points down) in game 1 to snatch a two-point triumph (96-94), they dominated Los Angeles in the next three games like they were a lottery team.
Diminutive back-up point guard JJ Barea – who was eventually elbowed mid-air by an irritated Bynum in the fourth quarter of the lopsided game 4 – ran circles around everyone, Terry and Stojakovic drilled three-pointers with ease, and Nowitzki massively outplayed his European counterpart. The offense was so smooth that their defense in the entire series was overlooked. Dallas astonishingly limited the Lakers’ offense to only 89.75 points per game (ppg).
Mavericks head coach (and former Celtic) Rick Carlisle had his team playing at an unbelievable level as they shattered the experts’ predictions. The momentum then carried over to the next round wherein they pulled-off a gentleman’s sweep versus the upstarts Oklahoma City Thunder.
Despite the age difference of both teams, the Mavericks were able to nullify the superior athleticism of the Thunder and showed the young team that having enough Playoff experience is still vital (Dallas rallied back in games 4 & 5 to clinch the series).
Just like in the last two Playoff rounds, the Mavericks were seen as the underdogs against the star-studded Heat. That narrative was further solidified after Miami bested Dallas by eight points (92-84) in game 1 of the Finals. Wade, James, and Bosh combined for 65 points, almost outscoring the entire starting line-up (67) of the Mavericks.
Nowitzki led the Mavericks to a stunning comeback in game 2, but the Heat immediately took the series lead back after winning game 3. Unfortunately for them, it was the last time that they would experience a victory that season. Prior to the fourth game of the Finals, Carlise decided to start Barea and slide Stevenson to the bench.
It proved to be a masterstroke as Dallas tied the series in game 4 and outclassed Miami in the next two games (won by an average of 9.5 points) to officially claim the 2011 NBA title. Nowitzki was named the 2011 Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) after producing 26.0 ppg, 9.7 rebounds per game (rpg), and 2.0 assists per game (apg). The German also shot an absurdly high 97.8 percent from the free-throw line.
Sure, people would point out a few things in their road to success; they luckily escaped the hot-streaking Spurs in the Playoffs (thanks to the Memphis Grizzlies upset), they played a worn-out Lakers core and defused a Miami team which was only formed at the start of the season, but despite all of these, we should still give them credit for doing their part and taking down teams that were heavily favored over them.
This memorable championship run was also a friendly reminder to everyone that nothing is ever certain once the season begins.
And lastly, Dallas (especially to Nowitzki, Terry, and owner Mark Cuban) capped off a sweet revenge tour over the very same franchise that embarrassed them in the 2006 NBA Finals.